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Gould on the limits of science - The Ex-Communicator

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March 10th, 2009


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02:01 pm - Gould on the limits of science
I was saying I really like Stephen Jay Gould, but I have read something in that book that I disagree with. I haven't got it with me so I can't quote exactly. Gould talks about the Vatican ruling that accepted Evolution as the source of man's physical body* but god at some unspecified point inserted a soul into the corporeal form, and this event is within the realm of theology. Gould says 'it's not worth arguing about'. He says nobody can see a soul, its absence or presence makes no difference to anything. So why argue about it? Let the Vatican demarcate 'souls' for its domain, it doesn't hurt anyone else.

I disagree with Gould very strongly on this, for two reasons.

Many years ago, before blogging, I hung out in various philosophical and political mailing lists. I was startled by one Christian thread which concluded that human clones (not that any exist yet) 'do not have souls'. I posted a quite angry email to the list saying clones are just people with the same DNA, like identical twins, and the subject was dropped. However, the exchange made me realise that because souls can't be seen or felt, it is open to any group of people to decide that another group of people don't have souls - and there's nothing you can do to refute it. In the middle ages theological discussions took place as to whether women have souls - now, they always decided we did, but the subject is always open for another round of opinion.

So that's the first reason I think letting religious people decide about 'souls' without challenge is a bad idea: because they can decide some humans don't have souls. Or it could be decided about other sentient species such as dolphins or aliens or apes. The scope for cruelty is limitless.

The other reason is less theoretical. As well as deciding some people don't have souls, religions can decide that some non-people do have souls. There's been a very good (I mean of course bad) example in the news this week. A little 9 year old girl in Brazil was raped by her father and became pregnant. To make things even more terrible she was pregnant with twins. Her tiny body could not cope with this, and she received medical treatment for the rape, including termination of pregnancy. Now the Vatican have excommunicated the the girl's mother who took her to the hospital, not the father who raped her.

This is because it has been decided that the fertilised eggs inside the girl have souls, from the moment of the rape, and their survival takes precedence over the little girl's mental and physical health. Thus the fiction of a 'soul' can be used to excuse dreadful cruelty.

So, two reasons I think why it is wrong to say that we can leave discussion of souls to the church, and content ourselves to talk about bodies. Because beliefs about souls can justify cruelty.

*(I say 'man' because the Vatican is focussed on 'man' rather than humans)

(16 comments | Leave a comment)

Comments:


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From:kerravonsen
Date:March 10th, 2009 02:54 pm (UTC)
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Anything can "justify" cruelty. Don't blame religion for man's inhumanity to man. I see your Vatican and I raise you one Pol Pot. I am sick and tired of this kind of stuff.

I'm not disagreeing that the examples you give are horrifying and wrong. But for goodness' sake don't blame the belief in souls for that cruelty. That's just as logical as blaming Dungeons & Dragons for psychopaths.
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From:communicator
Date:March 10th, 2009 03:02 pm (UTC)
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kerravonsen, I don't think you read what I wrote. I think you are responding to a post I didn't make.

I have not said - and I invite you to read back through my post - 'Christian people are responsible for all cruelty'.

What I have said here is that we can not (as Gould advises) safely ignore the discussion of the existence of souls, and leave the decision to the Vatican.

ETA - Also I have said here that if we invest human worth into somethign which can - as I have demonstrated - be removed from humans, then that is dangerous. But I invite you to explain to me why it is not dangerous, why it can be safely left to the Pope, or indeed to Pol Pot or any religious or political figure.

Edited at 2009-03-10 03:05 pm (UTC)
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From:kerravonsen
Date:March 10th, 2009 10:19 pm (UTC)
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Sorry, you hit one of my hot buttons, and I was tired. I don't have the energy to get into this debate.
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From:communicator
Date:March 10th, 2009 10:53 pm (UTC)
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Sure, no need to, invite just meant I welcomed your opinion, but I didn't mean to seem as if I was pushing you to give it. It reads more insistent than I meant now I read my comment back to myself.
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From:andrewducker
Date:March 10th, 2009 03:12 pm (UTC)
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Absolutely. People's beliefs affect their actions, so avoiding talking about one set of beliefs means not being able to discuss one set of things that influence their actions.
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From:communicator
Date:March 10th, 2009 03:17 pm (UTC)
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I undersand why Gould said it - because he wanted to be able to get on with his life without having to keep arguing about something he thought was meaningless. But unfortunately it's not meaningless to other people.
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From:azdak
Date:March 10th, 2009 05:06 pm (UTC)
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I see what you're saying, but if you were in argument with, say, the little girl's doctor about whether she should have an abortion, you wouldn't try to win it by proving that fertilised eggs don't have souls, would you? And you wouldn't have tried to win the argument with the person on the mailing list about clones by attempting to prove that clones do have souls. In fact, from your moral standpoint souls are an irrelevance - you can't add value to a person by proving that they have a soul, nor diminish their value by proving that they don't. In that sense, the concept of soul is part of the Christian magisterium and not even part of the debate (for you). As for the other side, even you were able to come up with something that proved to them once and for all that souls don't exist, that wouldn't change their opinion on abortion/women/clones one whit - because they're only using souls to back up their pre-existing prejudices.

In this sense, I agree with Gould that "souls" are within the realm of theology (of course, what Gould is really arguing is that *only* things which are irrelevant to science - because they don't exist, natch - should belong to the church's magisterium. As soon they matter (from a scientific point of view) science will snatch them back. Theology is just a dumping ground for stuff and nonsense - the Pope can pontificate on souls all he likes because they're nothing more than imaginary constructs).
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From:communicator
Date:March 10th, 2009 05:13 pm (UTC)
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I agree with almost everything you say, but to clarify - I think we do need to argue with theologians that souls do not exist. Because when the Pope pontificates about souls, real people get hurt, so it should be challenged.

And I think that it might not change the opinions of any living person, but it might shift the grounds of discussion for the future if more people do stand up and say no.
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From:azdak
Date:March 10th, 2009 05:20 pm (UTC)
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I think we do need to argue with theologians that souls do not exist.

But that won't change their minds, because the "soul" is a theological construct. They believe in souls because their religion tells them they exist, not because there's any kind of scientific proof of their existence. You can argue till you're blue in the face that souls don't exist (and, indeed, that God doesn't exist) but that won't get you anywhere because the other side doesn't accept your most basic axioms.

When it comes to protecting people, I think the most fruitful line of defence is the separation of Church and state. I can see that didn't stop the little girl's mother being ex-communicated, but it did make sure that she could go ahead and procure an abortion anyway.
From:egretplume
Date:March 10th, 2009 05:03 pm (UTC)
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Interesting post.
Have you seen the big news in genealogy that the Vatican has denied access to parish records to Mormons? The Vatican's fear is that the Mormons will posthumously baptize their dead Catholic ancestors and seal them to the LDS church. This, despite having previously ruled posthumous LDS baptisms as invalid in Catholic dogma. I believe there have been other complaints about the posthumous baptisms by Jewish groups.

So that's another argument about souls, albeit souls departed. I would think that people with a solid faith of their own would not worry about some other group's rituals somehow affecting the dead's identity in the afterworld. I think the Vatican looks very superstitious in this ruling. (And plain out wrong and cruel in the case of the Brazilian girl, whose abortion would fall under the health of the mother dispensation, surely.)
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From:communicator
Date:March 10th, 2009 05:09 pm (UTC)
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I haven't seen that. It surprises me because (for instance) my brother was able to get married as a Catholic, despite having already had a Church of England wedding to a different woman, because the earlier wedding didn't count. So I'm amazed that Mormon baptisms count.
From:egretplume
Date:March 10th, 2009 05:26 pm (UTC)
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Speaking as an extremely lax Catholic, it is possible that the Catholic Church discounted your brother's previous marriage on some other grounds: marriages can be annulled for all sorts of reasons including the extreme uninformed youth of the people involved who were not able to fully understand the commitment they were making, and all sorts of things. (Some cynically say a donation will help an annulment along too.) Because it's my understanding that the Catholic Church does recognize marriages of other faiths, and especially would with such a cognate as the C of E. What they don't recognize are divorces.

But I may well be mistaken and I'm not going to look it up, because canon law is complex, and because it's not really relevant to the "fighting about souls" topic, and I certainly don't pretend to be more of an expert on your brother than you! Nor do I really care about the Catholic Church's prioritization of painful hairsplitting over people's lives.
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From:communicator
Date:March 10th, 2009 06:16 pm (UTC)
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It may be he's given me a potted version of the story :-)
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From:julesjones
Date:March 10th, 2009 08:38 pm (UTC)
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I don't think they're all that afraid that the baptism will have any real effect on the dead -- they're worried about the effect on the living. It's *rude* to forcibly baptise other people's relatives, and it's aggressively hegemonising (not that the Roman Catholic church is in any position to criticise other religions for hegemonising tendencies).

A while back james_nicoll made a comment to the effect that death is to the Mormon Church what date rape drugs are to drunken frat boys. It's a nasty but accurate description of what this behaviour amounts to.

And yes, there have been complaints from Jewish groups, most notably about the attempt to force posthumous conversion to Mormonism upon as many Jewish victims of the Holocaust as they can trace. That goes down about as well as you'd think with many secular Jews, never mind religious ones.
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From:communicator
Date:March 10th, 2009 09:35 pm (UTC)
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When it comes to mediating between competing religions I just throw up my hands. They've got to sort it out between them because to me they are bald men fighting over a comb.
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From:julesjones
Date:March 10th, 2009 09:53 pm (UTC)
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I'd note that I am both agnostic and universalist (a fairly common combination amongst liberal Anglicans) and I personally do not think such baptisms have any effect at all on the putative disposition of the souls of the dead, should such souls exist -- and I would *still* be offended by this behaviour being directed at me and mine. It's not the religious turf war aspect of it, but the intentional attack on the presumably helpless regardless of their known wishes in life or the wishes of their kith and kin.

Of course, given my universalist attitude, I'm offended by it anyway, because it is an explicit claim that theirs is the One True Way and God may not override their opinion on who is deemed worthy of Heaven. But I feel that way about a lot of organised religion, including a large chunk of my own particular denomination.

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